For CJ Sapong, Soccer is Family

CJ Sapong

CJ Sapong has won the MLS Rookie of the Year award and become a regular starter for his team since being drafted in 2011 (Photo by Shakeskc via Flickr)

NOTE: I wrote this profile for for another web site on CJ Sapong before the start of his rookie year in MLS. He was considered the shock pick of the opening round, but went on to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

This season, he was named the second-best player under the age of 24 by the league’s official web site MLSsoccer.com. Sapong continues to score important and timely goals for Sporting Kansas City, who currently sit first in MLS’ Eastern Conference.

That other web site has undergone a redesign since the piece was published, which resulted in this story (and all the other ones I wrote) being lost. So I’m republishing it here now, both so it can actually exist somewhere, and also because it’s a nice reminder of the origins of one of the most talented young players playing in the United States.

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There is only one road to Mampong. Nestled in the center of the mountainous Ashanti region in central Ghana, the small village of 36,000 is only accessible by the two-lane Kumasi-Ejura road, which weaves through thick vegetation and steep dropoffs in its run between the regions capital (Kumasi) and one of its tourist destinations (The Kogyae Strict Nature Reserve).

Most travelers pass right by Mampong, but in the winter of 2009, it was where CJ Sapong stopped. One year from becoming Sporting Kansas City’s first pick  (10th overall) in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, the James Madison University forward was visiting the country where his father Kofi and mother Gillian were born.

“I took a bunch of my old soccer balls out to a field, which really wasn’t even a field…it was all dirt,” says Sapong, who was born and has lived his whole life in the United States. “I was entirely by myself, but I dropped the balls to the ground and all of a sudden here comes one person, here comes two people, here comes three, and then the next thing you know there are 30 people playing. All ages. The ball would get kicked out of bounds, a mom would pick it up and start playing herself.”

Sapong pauses for a moment.

“They’re living in an area where you have to walk to a well to get water to take a bath,” he says. “But they really appreciate life. Just to play a simple game like soccer really means a lot to them.”

Sapong shares this joy. Growing up in Manassas, Virginia, he played baseball and basketball in addition to soccer, sometimes with all three happening on the same day.

“My parents drove me to and from all of these games, but soccer was the one they had the most passion for, and they transferred that to me,” he says. “They were never the type of parents that forced me to go out and train. They knew that if I ultimately wanted to do it, I would do it.”

His parents’ personalities manifest themselves in Sapong’s play. His mother is descended from a royal family that lives more lavishly than most in Accra, the capital and largest city in Ghana. His father lived 45 minutes away in the town of Aburi, before spending two years in the Ghanian national service and moving to the US to pursue a master’s degree.

“My dad is all about working hard, being stern, and I guess that’s my on-field personality,” he said. “I play kinda angry. I know that it’s a privilege every time I step out on the field because there’s always somebody that’s fighting that wants to be in your spot.”

“But me and probably 1000 other players will tell you that it’s different when you get off the field. My mom wants me to always be happy and always enjoy myself. That’s where I get my love of life. She always wants me to live in the moment and take the best out of every situation.”

Sapong’s moment came in the 2011 MLS combine – the free-for-all talent evaluation festival that attracts a potpourri of players from programs of all sizes nationwide. Relatively undecorated on a James Madison team that struggled in a mid-major conference, Sapong knew the combine would be his best chance to make a good impression on MLS coaches. For the first time, he’d be playing against some of the best…even if they weren’t at their best.

“You could tell a lot of players slacked off a bit,” he said. “That’s what happens when you make a run in the NCAA tournament and you see your name here, you see your name there, you’re on this all star team, and that all star team…I think a lot of players slipped into a comfort zone.

At James Madison, we never played in our conference tournament, never played in the NCAA tournament, so all of the frustration I felt because of that made me work harder every year,” he says. “I gained a lot of confidence because when I got [to the combine] and surveyed the talent, I realized I could definitely play with these people.”

Sapong’s confidence grew as the combine wore on, and unbeknownst to him, so did his reputation. With his mother, father, and 17-year-old brother Edward at the Baltimore Convention Center for the Superdraft, Sapong sat back and relaxed for the first batch of picks. He had a successful combine, but was not expected to go in the first round.

“I really wasn’t even paying attention,” he says. “Then at number 10 all I heard was ‘James,’ then ‘Madison University.’ I was like ‘Oh…my…lord….’”

Sapong stood up slowly, shocked. His mother, overcome with emotion, was too surprised to stand, so Sapong picked her up. They embraced close and tight, then he sauntered towards the stage. Commissioner Don Garber was there, holding a Sporting Kansas City scarf. On his walk forward to claim it, Sapong breathed deep, and the air he inhaled triggered the obvious epiphany: He was a professional now.

When he exhaled, it was in the form of a raucous, joyous yell.

“I couldn’t contain it,” he said. “The first nine people in front of me were so stiff-necked. It’s like, please act like you got drafted, man! I gave the commissioner a hug. It was great, I loved it.”

Today, as Sapong wraps up his first week of training as a professional, the feeling hasn’t left. He speaks excitedly about the camaraderie in the Sporting locker room, where he is next door neighbors with Davy Arnaud, a nine-year MLS veteran and the longest-serving member of the team. All his life, soccer has gone hand-in-hand with family. Now, he is ready to join a new one.

“Certain things in [African] culture have just stuck with me,” Sapong says. “Family, spirituality, realizing that things to happen for a reason, and working hard until God puts you where he wants you to be.”

He smiles.

“I’m pretty confident, especially now, that the place where He wants me to be is someplace I want to be, too.”

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